He may have just returned from the golf course when TIA UK News caught up with the youthful Steve Matthews, but the former Sales and Operations Director of David Lloyd Leisure, is unlikely to have much time to better his handicap of 9 because there are plenty of new opportunities opening up.
In a deal, the terms of which will be confirmed in early November, David Lloyd Leisure was sold to private equity firm TDR Capital for an undisclosed sum believed to be around £750 million. Matthews, who stepped down after 28 years with DLL, leaves on good terms with his former employer and the new owners, and is of the opinion that the new ownership will be good for the group and will allow investment in facilities. Such investment may not materially increase the number of tennis facilities available in the UK, as he points out that the most recent DLL sites at Exeter and Farnham were not home to multiple tennis courts in the way sites at Finchley and Raynes Park were, with the business model usually allowing for three indoor and between four and six outdoor tennis courts. However, with over 700 courts in the UK, DLL accounts for a large percentage of the British indoor tennis facilities.
Getting more people to play more tennis, more often, remains top of Matthews’ agenda though. As an LTA Councillor, representing the interests of commercial businesses, the 50 year-old will continue to be involved in the evolution of the LTA’s strategy to increase participation. Matthews maintains that in advance of Michael Downey taking up the role as CEO, the LTA is pressing ahead with a five-year strategy to grow the game. This strategy focuses on getting people to play at clubs, communities and parks with targets of around 500,000 playing each week and 1 million playing monthly by 2017. There are many work streams within the LTA plotting how to achieve this and Matthews will continue to play an active role.
Matthews’ personal view is that the challenges that face the LTA are not so much to do with getting people to play in the first instance, but more to do with how to retain people in the game. Making tennis more affordable is, he believes, key to this success and he is under no illusion that this is a new challenge, “the same problems and work streams have been on the agenda for a decade,” he said. “Getting a joined-up approach with all tennis activity is vital to its success”.
One way the LTA can assist in this is, for example, flexing its buying power. So why not, he suggests, do a deal with say Starbucks or Costa to provide vending machines so that great coffee is available for parents? A small example he believes, of making tennis clubs more appealing places to hang out. He is mindful that everyone has the ability to make changes to the way British tennis is offered and delivered to people. Commenting on the growth targets he says, “Getting from 440,000 to 500,000 players, should not be that difficult a task”.
Matthews has been in tennis his entire working life, starting as a coach at David Lloyd Heston in 1985, progressing to Rackets Manager at Raynes Park when it opened in 1987 where he also ran the DLL/Slater Squad. Funded by David Lloyd and Jim Slater, the squad consisted of 12 boys who attended Reed’s School. The squad included Tim Henman, Jamie Delgado and James Bailey (Bailey won the Australian Open Juniors in 1993 and Delgado was Orange Bowl Champion in 1991). Matthews was appointed a regional director of DLL in 1996 and when he left the group to join Next Generation, it was as if he was on a piece of elastic, drawn back into DLL in 2006 when New Generation acquired DLL. He was Sales and Operations Director from 2009 until he left the group in September 2013.
As Chairman of the TIA Matthews has helped change the industry body from a small trade association to one with a growing membership which aims to build a healthy tennis industry in the UK. “Tennis people with experience and knowledge can do something to benefit the game”, he says enthusiastically. “It is possible for UK tennis businesses to earn a good living and offer a quality product.”
Matthews understands the challenges around drawing youngsters into the game, but with his knowledge of how DLL grew junior participation in both tennis and swimming, it won’t be long before Steve Matthews is spending time in another tennis role. As for the golf handicap, well, he’s sanguine: “It’s probably the best it will ever be”.